Thursday, August 23, 2018

Adele Webster and the Mysterious Dictionary of 10,000 Smells

A 66-year-old mystery remains unsolved. It involves a twentysomething female chemist who was in charge of a dictionary of smells at a London fragrance company. Ten thousand bottled smells to be exact.

The company is unnamed. The chemist, Adele Webster, is described as slim and attractive, but we never see her face. One can easily deduce that the journalist who wrote about Ms. Webster was a man, keen on beauty with little time or inclination for exploring a woman's intellect. He writes like Detective Joe Friday of Dragnet speaks.

The article you are about to read appeared in The Argus, a newspaper of record in its time (1846-1957). Are the contents of the article true? Is the tenor of the piece an example of how female chemists were perceived at the time?

There were few female chemists in the flavor and fragrance industry before or immediately after WWII, which begs the question. Who was Adele Webster and what was the name of the British company she worked for?

Glass Petal Smoke leaves this mystery in the hands of you, dear reader, because this kind of thing keeps us up at night.

The Argus
Friday, July 25, 1952
Page Two
LOOKING after a 10,000-volume glass dictionary that can be printed is slim, attractive Adele Webster's job. 
It's a dictionary of smells.

Every volume in this London building is a bottle containing a different odor. Oils and scented crystals, powders, and pieces of root are there. 
The more precious smells, among them musk from the musk deer, civet from the civet cat and ambergris, are kept in a safe. 
Floral extracts from petals can't be risked on shelves either.
One ton of petals gives only two ounces of extract. 
In May some of Adele's bottles were on show in the British Industries Fair to help sell scents.

In her early twenties, she is a chemist in a London factory that supplies ingredients to perfumiers. 
Her nose is her fortune.

It is pretty enough, but the part you see is not her particular pride; she values most her power of smell. 
Remembering 1,000 basic odors is easy.
With one sniff she can analyse a complicated scent saying exactly what it contains. 
No odor-giving ingredient escapes her. 
Picking up a bottle of expensive perfume, blended to grace the boudoir of the wife of a millionaire. Adele will murmur "Skatole" or "Indole." "They are disgusting odors," she says, "but in minute quantities invaluable in special perfumes."
People like Adele don't insure their noses, and take no care of them. 
"We don't have to," they say.
"We rarely catch colds, and then only slight ones, probably because in smelling correctly, we keep the nasal muscles strong and so don't pick up germs." 
The chief chemist is a human bloodhound.
Though he smokes he's never deceived when an assistant who spills an expensive scent tries to baffle him by spilling cheap ones on top. 
"He's phenomenal!" his staff say. "But even he can't go on sniffing all day. "It's too exhausting and would strain the muscles." 
And the bottle-stacked shelves of Adele's "dictionary" are there to prevent strain on his memory.
The article was published in The Argus and reprinted for educational purposes. The mystery of Adele Webster and the London fragrance company she worked for requires solving. Revelations welcome. Source:

The image of a woman scientist that accompanies this is article is from the National Photo Company Collection at The Library of Congress. There are only four "women scientists" in the search results for this collection. The images were taken between 1909 and 1923. Glass Petal Smoke considered using this this image, but the whole smashing-the-patriarchy-by-standing-on-a lab-table thing would be overstating the point. In addition, such an image may not reflect Adele Webster's character as she remains a mystery.